Today I went to a place that is rather special for me: Freshfields forest near Formby beach. I’ve been feeling a deep need to reconnect with wildness. Inspired by a friend I did it without shoes.
As I enter the forest I spontaneously greet the trees with a call that echoes across the undulating landscape – this forest is on a gently descending hillside created by sand dunes that have become covered by pines. The trees are quite widely spaced, letting dappled sunlight in to the forest floor. Moss coats the ground, and brambles and ferns grow thickly in the hollows.
I find a high point to look down on the hillocks of dunes. There is a stillness here. Only the occasional bird calI can be heard. I sit down with my coat for a blanket. It’s late September but this forest is still looking lush – sunlight twinkles off a million leaves and butterflies flirt here and there.
I lie down and take my shoes and socks off. These feet are amazed at the shock of fresh air.
I sit for a long time. Nothing is needed in this immersive re-connection. I am bathed in warm and green. For my ears, there is only the faint rustle of the pines in the merest breath of breeze, the occasional bird call, and the acceptable intrusion of a small propeller aeroplane overhead. And there is something else – the silence behind it all. Just being there is my meditation. Occasionally the distant ghost of something like a thought seeps in to my consciousness, but finds no purchase and melts away.
Lying at ground level, I find I am becoming part of the landscape for invertebrates. All around me tiny spiders and ants are making their way through the micro-forest of moss and shoots and continuing their journeys over my hands and feet, up my back and into my hair.
I set off across the moss-covered dunes, savouring the cool natural carpet underfoot. My feet bend and flex according the contours of the ground as they were designed to; gripping the slopes as I walk rather than just landing on them. It’s like my feet are remembering something that they hardly ever had a chance to learn in the first place. Walking barefoot is a natural sensory experience that we deprive ourselves of since – who knows, a thousand years of footwear? Until very recently in much of the world, shoes were a rarity and a luxury. The connection with the earth taken for granted by millennia of human beings has within a few generations been obstructed by these “coffins for the feet”.
Of course, walking across the landscape is easy if you have the leathery soles developed from everyday walking. Mine are lily-white, baby soft feet. Locked up and sweaty inside shoes for forty-odd years they have barely aged. But my enthusiasm knows no bounds. Scrambling across the dunes I reconnect with abandon, grinning as I wince at the sharp sticks and brambles. A bloody scratch appears between my toes. I wonder how soon my soles will remember their true calling and toughen up into primal leather.
I stop on a gentle slope covered with pristine moss. The pines end here the sun floods in. I take out sesame seeds and carrot sticks and look out on the dense scrub that slopes down to the beach. I start to hear tiny impacts on the ground around me. Something is dropping from the tree above, small chips of vegetation. I reach for one; it looks like a fragment of nut casing. I look up and see a tail twitching far above – dark red against the sky. Soon after, the squirrel discards the core of a pine cone, then another.
After lying, then meditating I experience a strong breakthrough into the profound present moment. Everything is suddenly more sharp and real.
I curl myself around the trunk of a pine and don’t move for ten minutes. Hugging a tree one is aware of a uniquely still energy. I have heard that if you put your ear close to a tree you can sometimes hear it growing. The sap actually makes a noise as it travels up the truck. I can’t hear anything but the blood flowing through my ears. These life forms are living on a very different timescale to us. They can teach us, but not in a way we can understand.
I have no idea what time it is but the sun is getting low in the sky and the breeze becoming fresher. Small birds start to appear in the trees around me, chatting to each other as they find their roosting spots.
Freshfields, I hope you don’t mind that I took some pine cones and sampled your blackberries. I’ll be back soon.